WASHINGTON ― Some of the military’s most advanced aircraft could be tracked by adversaries, with greater precision than radar, if security flaws in the latest signal technology aren’t addressed.
The risk is associated with Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) Out transponder technology. According to a Government Accountability Office report released this month, a 2010 Federal Aviation Administration rule requires all military aircraft to be equipped with ADS-B Out transponders by Jan. 1, 2020, as part of its program to modernize the air transportation system, but neither the Department of Defense nor the FAA has taken significant steps to mitigate security risks.
Whereas older transponders like the Mode S broadcast an aircraft-specific International Civil Aviation Organization code, squawk code and altitude, ADS-B Out technology provides much more detailed information. An aircraft’s registration number, longitude and latitude, dimensions and velocity are all broadcast by ADS-B Out transponders, allowing anyone with a ADS-B In receiver to track aircraft with more precision than radar.
Using a commercially available receiver, the GAO was able to track several types of military aircraft. The watchdog agency pointed to the risk that adversaries could do the same, and may leverage the technology’s inherent vulnerabilities to launch electronic and cyber attacks against aircraft. Adversaries may also attempt to jam ADS-B Out transmissions to obscure air traffic control and surveillance visibility, or spoof transmissions by creating false signals to confuse monitors.
Furthermore, a 2015 RAND assessment concluded that broadcasting detailed, unencrypted information about the position of a fighter aircraft like the stealthly F-22 ― which is classified secret ― poses significant security risks to DoD personnel and missions.
With the 2020 deadline approaching, the GAO warns there is an “urgent need” to address these security risks and plan for ADS-B implementation. The GAO explains that while the risks are known, “DOD and FAA have focused on equipping military aircraft with ADS-B technology and have not focused on solving or mitigating security risks from ADS-B.”
Despite knowing of these risks to military missions and security since 2008, DoD and FAA have not approved any of their proposed solutions. Most of the DoD’s proposed fixes, such as masking DoD aircraft identifiers, allowing pilots to turn off ADS-B and exemptions for select aircraft nullify the benefits the technology has to offer.
More precise tracking data could allow for increased air transportation system capacity, enhanced airspace safety, a reduced number of cancellations and delays, lower fuel consumption and even lessen the adverse environmental affects associated with flying.